The Dress Code: Managing Holiday Body Anxiety — Beyond “Body Positivity”

Three women around a table of food drinking wine no visible body anxiety
Photo by Kelsey Chance on Unsplash

Dear Dismantlers, The holidays are coming, and for me (and I know many, many others), it’s a time when my food and body anxiety spikes. I always gain weight in December (drinking, extra cookies, etc.) and while I’m super all about body positivity and work really hard to accept who I am and where my body is, I can’t help but feel…well, all the bad feelings when my pants start getting tight. In essence, a part of me always feels kind of like a scary, terrible chub-monster during this “fluffier” time of year. It’s like no matter how much my rational brain understands that my worth is not defined by my BMI, there’s always a little holdover of my ten-year-old self on a diet.

Soooo…can you offer anything to help feel less terrible about myself and focus on something happier?

We’re really sorry — you said you’re not alone, but we want to reiterate that we know EXACTLY how you feel. There are, of course (and unfortunately) many ways that discomfort with our bodies can be heightened around this time of year. Physical limitations or food requirements might make us feel out of place. Or we might be living in a body that’s already considered “not normal” and the holiday season means socializing with less accepting people than we usually surround ourselves with.

But you mention something specific, and painfully common, which can compound all those other issues: weight gain. With the holidays, the contradictory combination of indulgence with the #NewYearNewYou countdown can make normal body anxiety so much worse. And women especially (but certainly not exclusively) tend to bond over these contradictions — indulging then restricting is how many of us were raised to relate to each other during celebrations.

Most of us are familiar with all the “to-do” advice: don’t go to a party hungry, try to keep up with an exercise/self-care schedule, get sleep, don’t drink too much alcohol, etc. This is all fine, and it’s mostly intended to help us actually feel good. But it’s not always easy to practice, and we shouldn’t feel guilty if we don’t adhere to some idealized disciplinary regimen. Plus, festive indulgences make life really fun! A hangover is not just mild poisoning — it’s also a sign that you’re enjoying some of life’s (i.e., capitalism’s) greatest pleasures.

But we digress: what we want to offer here is a way of putting the psychological stress of body anxiety into social and historical context. After all, we’re trained in cultural studies, not counseling or therapy. Our thoughts are not to contradict or counter all the other advice that’s out there, but to highlight another perspective that we’ve found very useful. So here’s what we can offer:

First, you identified a core issue: clothes! One thing about contemporary fashion and sizing is that the things we wear tend to be very form-fitting, especially our pants/bottoms. Think about it: a 10-20 pound variation in body weight is something that many of us experience pretty frequently across our life spans. It’s totally normal and shouldn’t be that noticeable! In fact, for many of us we don’t notice it until we start to get dressed. And then we can’t button our pants and have nothing to wear and are like….I’M A TERRIBLE PERSON!! Which is obviously not true.

It can help to put our bodies into historical context: both in a larger sense of social history and your own history. Our bodies change a lot — like, every day, not just from month to month and year to year. So speaking of clothes, try this concrete strategy: many of us have a relatively predictable size variation and fluctuation. Prepare for that! Some people keep “skinny clothes,” but we should also keep “fluffy clothes.” Both are relevant to our lives. If you want to look at a system for closet-cleaning and organizing, take a look here. While you do, consider accepting the range of clothing sizes that suit your body and keeping clothes that fall into this continuum. (And remember that women’s “standardized” sizes are nonsense; the number on the tag tells you almost nothing about the garment’s measurements. And the further you get from a “fit” size — usually an 8 — the odder the proportions are likely to be.) 

Looking at the longer timeline, idealizing thinness and pathologizing “obesity” is a relatively new development. Several scholars have recently shown that the mandate to be thin, especially in “The West” is rooted not only in patriarchy (which seems obvious), but also in white supremacy. In her book Fearing the Black Body, Sabrina Strings shows how “fat phobia, as it relates to black women, did not originate with medical findings, but with the Enlightenment-era belief that fatness was evidence of “savagery” and racial inferiority.” And Sara has written previously about how white women in the 1920s began going on “reducing diets” in part as a way to demonstrate their masculine self-discipline AND to distinguish themselves from immigrants and women of color who were often depicted as fleshy, excessive, and in turn, less worthy of equal citizenship. Therefore, giving fat-phobic diet culture the finger is actually a small act towards dismantling white supremacy and patriarchy! And it comes with pie! 

Don’t forget that there are communities and advocates out there that do wonderful things for body positivity and changing the problematic attitudes about bodies and weight that have been drilled into our brains. However, while the body positivity movement has done some great work, it can also, as Amanda Mull wrote for Racked, feel like another set of limitations on women’s emotions, while the ways body privilege intersects with other forms of power can feel washed over by a vague call to “love yourself.” This critique is not to dismiss the idea of body positivity, but just to recognize that it doesn’t help everyone all the time, in part because it prescribes a mantra-like solution that doesn’t always address the social-structural realities generating body anxieties in the first place.

In the end, understand that we are embedded in what Susan Bordo called the “bulimic” logic of late capitalism. Consumer culture asks that we indulge freely but also that we do the exact opposite in the realm of production. We have to constantly withhold and even purge while also consuming without end. While we can hate on this contradiction, it can be helpful to grab onto it, accept it, and know that the perpetual tug-of-war related to our bodies isn’t “real” — but its effects certainly have a real impact on our psyches.

Feminist scholars like Bordo have been incredibly helpful to us in navigating our own relationships with body anxiety, but if you don’t have time to read a few hundred pages of cultural analysis before Thanksgiving, here’s one last tip: Sara always remembers the time she was visiting Elise in New Orleans in December and they were holiday shopping together. She tried on a jacket that should have been a size larger than what she wore and it was too small. Even knowing all that we’ve outlined above, Sara could feel herself starting to spiral. Until Elise grabbed the coat, put it back on the rack and said, “You’re perfect. The jacket’s wrong. Don’t let some stupid boutique’s weird sizes ruin our day.” And for the rest of the visit they focused on how great it was to spend time together: they ate every kind of food, drank all the drinks, added new laugh lines to their faces and started hatching an idea for a website focused on feminist fashion and cultural studies. So, if all else fails, just try to see yourself the way your best friend does. It works.

Now we want to hear from you! Send your fashion related questions, problems, or half-formed thoughts to Sara at dismantlemedia at gmail dot com.

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